Home » Africa: Nigeria’s cargo airports – A tale of broken dreams

Africa: Nigeria’s cargo airports – A tale of broken dreams

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His expansive farm, which spans several acres, is a wonder to behold. Well fenced and neatly nurtured, it could make anyone want to embrace farming.
Tucked inside an agrarian community in Akoko area of Ondo State, which is about 87 kilometres from Akure, the state capital, one would be thrilled, even from the distance, with the much hard work and vision behind the project.

From garden eggs to fresh tomatoes, ‘ugu’ leaves, cassava and yam plantation, the farm owner, Toyin Adewale, told our correspondent, during a visit to the farm recently, that farming had always been his first love and that he had yet to reach the climax.

Beyond supplying his immediate community with these items and his occasional movement of goods to the popular Mile 12 market in Lagos, Adewale’s dream is to export these items, upon harvest, to other West African countries and beyond, which he said had informed his large investment in these items.

In fact, he noted that his fresh hope of being an exporter came alive when he heard that there would soon be a cargo airport in the state.

“That aspiration to export our produce didn’t just happen,” he quipped with a flash of a smile. “I felt we needed to expand, and when I heard that the Akure airport would now serve as a designated cargo airport, I was glad. You can imagine how it would feel when you have a plan and all things now seem to be working for your good.”

Adewale said he contacted his brother in one of the European countries so they could collaborate and his brother was happy with the idea.

“So, I knew all was set. I had to increase what we planted so that beyond the local consumption and supplies, we could still export the remaining and with that there would be no loss,” he said.

Preparing to kick off his exportation plans, the father of three said during his latest harvest, he took a casual trip to the airport in Akure to make enquiries as to how to export his goods.

But on getting there, Adewale’s enthusiasm and hope were soon deflated and reduced to frustration when he found out that all the noise about the readiness of the Akure airport for cargo operations was mere hype.

“The news I had heard about the airport was comforting and I felt there was no cause for worry. On getting to the airport, I was confronted by the wary eyes of passers-by and officials of the airport who felt I must have been living in another planet to think all I had heard was true,” he said.

When an official at the airport took time to explain to him that Akure airport was not a functional cargo airport as presented by the Federal Government, Adewale said he felt disappointed and disillusioned by the news, not only because of the sham, but more importantly because his hope of expanding his business had suffered a great setback.
Adewale’s experience is a generous reflection of the frustration of many exporters who wish to export their products through non-functional Nigerian cargo airports. To them, it has been tales of stagnation, disappointment and frustration.

In a bid to investigate these complaints and frustrations by prospective farmers who, largely, do not have the means to first transport their goods to Lagos to make use of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, I embarked on a visit to five designated airports – Lagos, Uyo, Akure, Port Harcourt and Owerri – to see the infrastructure put in place by the Federal Government to aid cargo services at these airports.

Among these five airports, my findings show that only Lagos and Port Harcourt currently import and export cargoes to various countries, while others barely function as passenger airports.

Akure’s abandoned cargo shed
The first port of call was Akure, South-West Nigeria. The five-hour journey from Lagos was a bit interesting but tiring.

It’s been five years since the Federal Government designated Akure as cargo airport, thus, anyone would look forward to see how much things have changed.
The serene environment and friendly nature of the Akure people made me feel at home; it was a lot different from the ‘chaotic’ nature of Lagos that I had been used to. Even though it was my first time in the city, people were eager to describe the location of the airport for me as soon as I got out of the car park.

To save myself the stress and worry, I embarked on a commercial motorcycle, also known as ‘Okada’ in the local language. We rode to the airport, and that again was fun, as the motorcyclist updated me with happenings in the state. He told me he had never visited the airport because he believed not much was happening there.

At the airport gate, I anticipated serious questioning by the airport officials and even security men as to my mission to the airport, but to my surprise and utter amazement, that didn’t happen. We rode in as if we were regular visitors, with no questions asked. That, for me, indicated the porous nature of the airport.

As we approached the airport terminal, something seemingly unusual caught my attention. I quickly asked the motorcyclist to stop. I disembarked and settled him. There was a signboard by the left side of the pathway, very close to the terminal. On the signboard was written ‘Site for Cargo shed’. A cargo shed is a warehouse where cargoes are processed for export and import.

To satisfy my curiosity, I walked into the pathway leading to the actual location of the Cargo shed, only to discover that a foundation for the cargo shed had been abandoned and overtaken by thick bushes. In fact, one had to look more closely to see what had become of the blocks used for the foundation.

A few kilometres away from the abandoned project, also by the side of the pathway leading to the new passenger terminal, I saw about 10 containers holding the materials for the construction of a cargo shed.

Apparently, the containers have remained abandoned five years after the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) allocated a whopping N322,727,000.40 out of the total contract sum of N452,950,176.00 to Lugapego Nig. Limited, the company contracted to build the cargo terminal.

A source close to the airport authorities told this writer that recently, security agents became suspicious of the containers because they had been abandoned inside the bush for a long time.

I also learnt that the containers were recently brought out of the bush and kept just beside the new uncompleted passenger terminal for security agents to keep a close watch over them.

Hope seems to be lost for exporters and intended exporters like Adewale in Akure and its environs, as those who could afford it have resorted to travelling all the way to Lagos as the alternate airport to export their produce.

On the other hand, those who cannot afford this means are constrained to sell to buyers in their locality and neighbouring towns, and if it is a consumable, they could consume the rest or sell at a much cheaper price to avoid wastage.

Akure is an agricultural trade centre for yam, cassava, corn (maize), banana, rice, palm oil, palm kernel, okra, and pumpkins, which are grown by the Ondo people. Although cocoa is by far the most important local commercial crop, cotton, teak, and palm produce are also cultivated for export.

These rich agric produce can be sold out to Europe, Middle East and America in a bid to earn foreign exchange if only the right facilities are provided to aid exportation. But, given the non-functionality of the cargo arm of this airport, such potential would remain an investment in doubt.

The ideal cargo airport
From findings and according to international standards, an ideal cargo airport should have a cargo shed to house cargoes coming in and out of the country; a long and durable runway to accommodate big cargo aircraft; Instrument Landing System (ILS) for night operations, and fire-fighting vehicles. But these are absent in many of the airports.
Also, FAAN is expected to provide sufficient airport apron or apron where aircraft are parked, unloaded or loaded, refuelled, or boarded; good link roads between the airports and the adjoining arterial roads; screening machines, x-ray machine, quarantine equipment and Explosives Trace Detectors (ETD).

Manpower is also compulsory for cargo operations to take off. These include personnel of Immigration, Customs, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), quarantine officers, amongst others.

State of infrastructure across cargo airports
Akure is, however, not the only airport with abandoned cargo project. Eight other airports designated for cargo have faced the same fate after the Federal Government, through Stella Oduah, the then Aviation Minister, in 2011 released $870 million (N174 billion) for the airport infrastructure renewal project, which included the construction of the
cargo terminals.

Recall that FAAN five years ago designated 13 airports as perishable cargo airports in a bid to transform the aviation sector into a major revenue earner for the country. FAAN promised to develop with international standard perishable cargo facilities to enhance their
operations.

“The strategy is to create the much-needed storage infrastructure in view of the large volume involved and to facilitate the evacuation of agricultural produce to domestic markets in conformity with international standards,” Yakubu Dati, the former coordinating general manager, Aviation Parastatals, said.

“The development of Economic Free Trade and Export Processing Zones will be targeted alongside cargo airports and agro-allied industrial clusters, based on local opportunities and the state’s competitive and comparative advantage in agriculture production,” Dati said.

Cities prioritised to host perishable cargo terminals are Abuja, Akure, Calabar (Cross River State), Ilorin (Kwara State), Jalingo (Taraba State), Jos (Plateau State), Kano (Kano State), Lagos, Makurdi (Benue State), Minna (Niger State), Owerri (Imo State), Port Harcourt (Rivers State), and Uyo (Akwa Ibom State).

The only functional cargo airports today, however, are Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja airports, while development of Owerri cargo airport is at an advanced stage.
At these functional cargo airports, cargo infrastructure is solely provided by two ground handling companies, Skyways Aviation Handling Company Limited (SAHCOL) and Nigerian Aviation Handling Company, Nahco Aviance (NAHCO).

Rather than support these companies and exporters in their efforts to grow exports, findings show that FAAN, Customs and other security agencies overburden them with multiple taxation and excessive rents, while cargo infrastructure suffers across the airports.

No cargo shed, ILS at Uyo airport
Akwa Ibom Airport in Uyo, the state capital, currently does not have a cargo shed and as such, no government official is assigned to the airport to monitor the cargo inflow or outflow. Few cargoes that manage to pass through the airport are referred to Lagos for processing. This implies that cargoes leaving Uyo airport do not go through the required checks because of the absence of cargo x-ray and screening machines at the
airport.

The Uyo airport has just one runway and it is not long enough for big cargo aircraft to navigate. The airport also lacks night landing aids for aircraft to take off and land at nights.

Poor infrastructure at Port Harcourt airport Port Harcourt International Airport also has its own challenges. Just as the airport continues to rank as one of the worst international airports in the country, so are the facilities at the cargo section of the airport, although SAHCOL and NAHCO, which handle 100 percent of all export and import cargoes going through Nigerian airports, have their presence in the airport and have managed to provide some facilities to aid cargo processing.

Port Harcourt Airport, which processes heavy-duty cargoes, mainly oil and gas equipment, lacks the needed infrastructure to facilitate cargo exports and imports. The cargo screening machines provided by FAAN at one of the cargo warehouses have been unserviceable for two years now. The cargo handlers, therefore, resort to manual search, which slows down the search process and may not be as thorough as expected because fatigue could set in whilehe officials are at work.

This airport also has only one runway. Experts have envisaged that if the runway needs to be maintained, there will be no alternate runway to accommodate flights going in and out of the airport, considering the fact that the airport ranks as one of the busiest airports in Nigeria, after Lagos and Abuja.

Lagos airport suffers neglect
Lagos airport is the busiest airport in Nigeria and processes over 60 percent of the cargo imported into and exported outside the country. Expectedly, SAHCOL and NAHCO have channelled most of their maintenance efforts and facilities required to facilitate the processing of cargoes to this airport, as almost 70 percent of their revenue is made from the Lagos airport.

But as is typical of all the airports, the cargo section also suffers neglect from FAAN. No fewer than 25 iron beam containers have been abandoned at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos since 2015, while an additional 70 containers imported from China have gone missing.

Impeccable sources at the airport told BDSUNDAY that 25 containers of iron beams were ordered by former Aviation Minister Stella Oduah in 2014 for the reconstruction of the hajj and cargo terminals before she was removed from office. But since the containers arrived in 2015, they have been abandoned.

Also, the airport, which is rated as the first in the country, remains porous and criminals have repeatedly stolen cargo from the shed. Ground handling staff at the tarmac area of the airport have also been accused of conniving with Customs agents to steal cargo at the airport, thereby leading to loss of confidence by importers and exporters and huge loss of
revenues to the government. More importantly, the owners of such cargoes
are at the receiving end, and their pain is better imagined.

The cargo sheds provided by the ground handling companies at Lagos airport are also insufficient to accommodate the daily influx of cargo into the airport. At the import section, cargoes spill over from the cargo shed provided. This is partly because people bring in cargoes from other states, including those with non-functional airports, to the Lagos
airport for speedy operation.

Work in progress at Owerri airport
Although no cargo is currently being processed at the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, Owerri, Imo State, the state government is erecting about eight structures, thrice as big at Lagos cargo terminals, aimed at boosting economic development in the South-East geo-political zone of the country.

While some exporters in the region are happy with the development as they anticipate cargo movements from the airport soon, others think the project may become a white elephant when it is completed, considering the low volume of passengers using the airport.
Only DanaAir, AirPeace and Arik Air currently operate in and out of the airport daily.

Experts in the aviation sector think this small traffic volume does not justify the massive structures being erected at the airport.

Other cargo airports

There are currently no cargo facilities at Calabar, Ilorin, Jalingo, Jos, Makurdi and Minna airports. As such, there is absence of cargo activities at these airports. BDSUNDAY’s checks show that Paache Construction, which was handling the cargo terminal at Jos airport, received N459,214,790.85 out of the total contract sum of N785,348,493.56. Yet, there is no infrastructure on ground to justify the huge funds released.

For the construction of the cargo terminal at Markurdi airport, Paache was paid N613,860,476.67 out of N818,480,635.56, but there is currently no cargo facility on ground at the airport. Challenges of cargo handlers Besides the dilapidated state of infrastructure across cargo airports in Nigeria which makes their job quite challenging, cargo handlers face other challenges as well. One such challenge is excessive rent and
leasing charges levied on them by FAAN.

A cargo manager told this writer that despite the annual rent paid to FAAN, the agency is still requesting that it pays N1.5 million for apron pass to move its vehicles in and out of the airport.

Challenges of exporters
Apart from the absence of cargo facilities across airports in the country to aid the export of cargo, exporters have continued to battle with multiple taxes. Jasper Awunor, export coordinator of agents at NAHCO, said that exporters pay through their noses to export their cargoes out of the country.

“Some goods need to pass through a lot of processes before they are approved for exportation. After bringing the documents to Lagos, Customs sometimes slows down the process. There are multiple checkpoints all in a
bid to extort money from exporters,” Awunor said.

He also explained that dollar exchange rate has driven some exporters out of business.

“We know the volume of jobs we were doing here before now, but for us to get to where we want to be, government should help us in any way they can with the dollar rate,” he said.

“Airlines charge based on dollars and when that is converted to naira, you discover we pay so much. There are some cargoes that have been abandoned in the cargo shed for some time now because the owners don’t have money to export them,” he added.

Our checks show that the duty-free policy on all cargoes exported out of the country has yet to take effect. Another exporter who identified himself as Sola Abiola lamented that the duplicity of functions among the several government agencies at the airport has only increased their cost as they have to pay more.

“In 1993 when I started exporting, we had just three government agencies
which were Customs, NDLEA and State Security Services (now DSS). But
today, we have about eight agencies collecting one fee or the other,”
Abiola said.

“Ten years ago, when exporters brought their produce, within 15 to 30 minutes the cargoes were processed and ready for export, but today, it takes an average of four to seven hours to get our cargoes cleared from the warehouse,” he said.

Prospects for exports in Nigeria There seems to be no doubt that Nigeria has a promising export business, but that can be achieved only if the right infrastructure is put in place
to facilitate them, especially agro-allied produce.

Some of the commodities currently being exported are palm oil, vegetables (fresh/dry), melon, ‘ogbono’ seeds, cashew nut, ginger and garlic. Others include zobo leaves, yam, plantain, pepper, cocoa, bitter cola, cola nut, garri (cassava flakes), dried fish, yam flour, cassava flour, plantain flour, cocoyam, vegetables and various kinds of fruits.

There is room for improvement as Nigeria is yet to fully participate in the N250 billion annual air freight export market in Africa. With the right infrastructure in place, Nigeria can conserve foreign exchange through exports.

Exportation of both perishable and non-perishable products from Nigeria to Europe, America and other parts of the world through the nation’s cargo airports saw a double-digit growth on the back of a weaker naira as well as the recent trade promotion drive by the Federal Government.

Data gathered from NAHCO show that air cargo export soared from 9,609,772 kilogramme (kg) in 2015 to 12,094,952kg in 2016, showing a 25.8-percent increase.

On the other hand, the volume of air cargo imports declined significantly from 75,016,936kg in 2015 to 52,842,852kg in 2016, which is a 41.96- percent drop.
Similar data obtained from SAHCOL show that air cargo exports rose from
3,147,842kg in 2015 to 6,665,340kg in 2016, showing a 111.74-percent rise.

However, imports fell from 12,440,234kg in 2015 to 11,327,915kg in 2016, showing an 8.9-percent fall.

Meanwhile, the decrepit state of most of the airports is a sharp contrast with the promises made by the Federal Government that it was set to promote non-oil export.
Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Agriculture, had said in October 2017 that there was no alternative to the exportation of agricultural produce, stressing that dependence on only oil and gas export was no longer an option.

He also pointed out that Nigeria is the largest yam producer in the world, but that 30 percent of the yams end up wasting away. But the facilities that prevent this wastage – functional cargo airports – are not available.

“The argument that yams would be short is not true; 30 percent of the yams that we grow rot away and we are the largest producers of yam in the world. The figure is not mine; it is that of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO),” he had said.

One could argue that if all the cargo airports that had become white elephant projects were functional, that 30 percent that end up wasting away could have been exported, thereby boosting foreign exchange earnings, increasing tax revenues to government and even encouraging more investment by the farmers.

Experts say government’s frequent promise to boost non-oil export would only make an impact and yield the expected result when all the cargo airports are operational, so that farmers, who are mostly in the rural areas, could to export their produce.

Way forward
Experts in the aviation sector have suggested that the Federal Government should concession these cargo airports to private sector for infrastructure upgrade. John Ojikutu, member of aviation industry think tank group Aviation Round Table (ART) and chief executive of Centurion Securities, said the decision by the government to build cargo terminals across 13 airports was a way to siphon money, adding that the job should be given out to the private sector.

“Anything that has to do with cargo or terminal building should be left to the private sector. It is not the area for government to invest in. These areas should be given out on concession to interested investors,” Ojikutu said.

“The areas government should concentrate on are security areas such as
the runways, perimeter and security fences,” he said.

by IFEOMA OKEKE
Source: businessdayonline.com

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